A.W. Tozer, the Anti-Populist

Three weeks ago, my dad gave me a book, which the old man almost never does. From the early seventies, when he devoured The Lord of the Rings, to the mid-nineties, when he discovered that Calvin and Luther agreed with him about predestination, Dad was not a reader. Even now that he has books going much of the time, he doesn't talk about them much. So, for him to haul off and give me The Root of the Righteous by A.W. Tozer -- not just recommend it, but hand me a copy -- was urgent enough that I started it immediately. That night, I sat in the orchestra pit during the dialog of the Sondheim show I was playing, and devoured page after page -- only putting the book down when the conductor insinuated that a downbeat was headed my way.

I have been writing in a meandering, bloggish sort of way about evangelical populism. I have described it as a mindset of suspicion and resentment, of "us versus them," that has shut down cultural interaction between evangelicals and other Americans. I have also noted populism's emotional shallowness, as well as its conformism and corruption.

To close this theme (and the blog's readers sighed with relief), I sum up my problem with evangelical populism: it has fostered a damning self-complacency.

When we present Christianity as a social program, as one side in a protracted culture war, we commit several crimes simultaneously. We mistake the cultural legacy of biblical faith, Judeo-Christian civilization, for the gospel itself. It is a well-worn heresy, though wrapped now in the old red, white, and blue. We also take a rhetorical posture that is alien to the New Testament, that of the debater who scores points off the gaffs and weaknesses of his opponent. This vandalizes the office of preacher.

But most alarmingly, we teach ourselves by rote, election after election, that we stand for the truth, that we defend God's holiness, that we are the Lord's people doing the Lord's work. That is to say, we teach ourselves a lie. A mere glance into the family lives of church-going people these days confirms their utter lack of spiritual power.

To foster such self-complacency is to freeze souls against the grace of God.

Which brings me back to Tozer's book. The Root of the Righteous is a collection of editorials he wrote for his denominational magazine during the 1950s, and their dated quality as artifacts gives them, for me, a kind of prophetic unction, as if the Spirit makes the dust of the decades say amen.

Take the very first sentence of the book:

One marked difference between the faith of our fathers as conceived by the fathers and the same faith as understood and lived by their children is that the fathers were concerned with the root of the matter, while their present-day descendants seem concerned only with the fruit. (p 3)

That alone is a lot to ponder. Tozer meant that, in the 1950s, believers regarded a "serious-minded approach to sacred things" as something to smile at. He said, "Much that passes for Christianity today is the brief, bright effort of the severed branch to bring forth its fruit in its season." (p 4)

Take this blunt assessment: "Probably the most widespread and persistent problem to be found among Christians is the problem of retarded spiritual progress." (p 7) Or this observation about "the inordinate attachment to every form of entertainment" in the 1950s:

The average man has no central core of moral assurance, no spring within his own breast, no inner strength to place him above the need for repeated psychological shots to give him the courage to go on living. He has become a parasite on the world, drawing his life from his environment, unable to live a day apart from the stimulation which society affords him. (p 31)

Churches in the 1950s surrendered to the consumer mindset. Tozer says (p 33) that they "have become little more than poor theaters where fifth-rate 'producers' peddle their shoddy wares with the full approval of evangelical leaders who can even quote a holy text in defense of their delinquency."

Tozer also makes the striking observation that religious life in the 1950s showed "a lack of integration in the religious personality. There seems to be no vital connection between the emotional and volitional departments of the life. The mind can approve and the emotions enjoy while the will drags its feet and refuses to go along." (p 56)

Tozer fed people with an exalted view of Christ that nurtured reverent fear, not prim judgmentalism. He wrote and spoke with authority about the God who had won his submission.

Imagine strong words like his in a denominational magazine today. It's impossible: such publications have become mere public relations pieces. They would never warn Christians against dead spirituality, or its specific symptoms. That would be way too preachy.

This is a measure of how much leaders flatter us, and how deeply we need their flattery.

It's also a measure of my old man's good taste. Calvin, Luther, Tolkien, Tozer.